Missional: To dwell and to die

I took a great course at Fuller Seminary that explored the significance of the cross in the New Testament. In one of the final lectures for the course, our professor summed up how she has come to understand the death of Jesus: “The crucifixion was the consequence of the incarnation.”

If there is one element of “the missional church” or “missional theology” as I understand it that at once compels and terrifies me, it is the invitation to live an incarnational life. Philippians two tells me that my “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” and then it describes the most terrifying emptying of all power, privilege and self-preservation imaginable. An emptying that leads to death, and not just any kind of death but one so humiliating and horrific that it would not have been discussed in polite company.

I think if there were one thing I would want us to remember today as we consider all things missional, it would be that as we talk about incarnational living and incarnational ministries and being incarnational wherever we live, we are talking about a way of life that leads to the cross. It did for Jesus, and if I read Philippians correctly, it should for us as well.

My church here in Los Angeles began with the calling of four people who moved to the end of the street where we now live seeking an answer to this question: “Do you love your neighbor as yourself?” And when I think of the stories that have filled sixteen years of following Jesus here, it is remarkable to see how very consistently our community has been called to die. And not in the “Oh, there will be some suffering from time to time” kind of way but in the day to day, hour by hour choosing of other over self.

There is a fondness in missional circles for speaking of how Jesus came and dwelt among us and how we too are called to “come and dwell”; to incarnate in our communities; to “move into the neighborhood” so to speak. Coming from a church context where all members live within two miles of one another and most within walking distance, I can testify to the ways that committing to dwell in a place powerfully impacts witness, community transformation, and discipleship.

The commitment to making one’s family of faith something that does not involve a commute is radical and offensive to many, yet it is truly the thing we appreciate most about our church. It is also the thing that, in so many ways, continues to press for us the death of self-love. When your parish is blocks and streets and not a given social or ethnic or age demographic, the mission field surely holds a hefty does of the people you would not readily choose to invite to your table. As my denomination’s president once so aptly put in response to a well-known church-growth expert saying that pastors should build their congregations out of people who they would most enjoy spending a vacation with or playing some leisure sport: “Who wants to play tennis with Lazarus?”

I think too of my church in Portland where a black pastor had every reason to plant a black church in (at the time) a mostly black part of town. But he kept bumping into white folks who lived in the stately homes the next community over, and God nudged this minister toward recognizing a call to be their pastor as well. Everyone encouraged him against planting a multi-cultural church: it will be slow to grow; the white people will try to take over; there will be too many conflicts. But Pastor Henry was faithful to God’s invitation to embrace a community over a demographic and so our church was born. And that was a choice that resulted in all manner of struggle and sacrifice that he could have politely declined and been affirmed for his “church-planting wisdom.” But he chose to suit up and hit some balls with Lazarus instead.

The consequence of the incarnation is the crucifixion.

A few months ago, my three-year old daughter was painting and as I walked by her easel I exclaimed happily: “Mercy, you painted a cross!” She stepped back from her paper in horror, and looked at me with confusion and even fear. For her, the cross is something terrifying; gruesome. And here I was praising her like she had painted a pretty rainbow or a happy butterfly. Mercy understands the scandal of Jesus’ death, and I hope that those of us seeking to imitate an incarnate God really understand that that means following a crucified One.

Listed below are the forty-nine other bloggers participating in today’s global synchroblog answering the question: “What is Missional?”
Alan Hirsch
Alan Knox
Andrew Jones
Barb Peters
Bill Kinnon
Brad Brisco
Brad Grinnen
Brad Sargent
Brother Maynard
Bryan Riley
Chad Brooks
Chris Wignall
Cobus Van Wyngaard
Dave DeVries
David Best
David Fitch
David Wierzbicki
Doug Jones
Duncan McFadzean
Jamie Arpin-Ricci
Jeff McQuilkin
John Smulo
Jonathan Brink
JR Rozko
Kathy Escobar
Len Hjalmarson
Makeesha Fisher
Malcolm Lanham
Mark Berry
Mark Petersen
Mark Priddy
Michael Crane
Michael Stewart
Nick Loyd
Patrick Oden
Peggy Brown
Phil Wyman
Richard Pool
Rick Meigs
Rob Robinson
Ron Cole
Scott Marshall
Sonja Andrews
Stephen Shields
Steve Hayes
Tim Thompson
Thom Turner


  1. I can’t even tell you how timely this post is. Pastor Henry announced his retirement on Sunday. His last Sunday will be August 31st.

  2. Out and by far, this post hits the top of the list for this synchroblog. Our culture so powerfully tries to call us away from the cross in our faith, but, as you say, it is the journey we MUST be on.

    I am also encouraged that, on the other side of the cross comes a fullness of new life that cross-avoidance could never have offered. Thanks!


  3. Jamie,

    Thank you so much–that means a lot coming from you.

    I think the post should have a second part that deals with what you describe here in terms of what the fullness of life looks like. Maybe I’ll post that tomorrow 🙂

  4. THanks, Makeesha! I loved your post too, especially the three word part. Very cool.

  5. Erika, great post and there are few people that can blog on genuine incarnational living with authenticity and from what I’ve read of you over the last few months, you’re one of them, with Jamie another. Thanks for the challenge to not just hypothetically discuss missional from the suburbs but to actually live there and die to self in the alleys and alongside people.

  6. Erika… I agree with Jamie that (thus far in my reading) this post grabs at the core of true missionality. Called to die.

    I am very moved as this thought brings me back to the heart of what I believe, something I have forgotten as the years pass.

  7. Wow. Thanks, Mark. I really appreciate your comment and even in writing it I too was reminded of the heart of what I believe.

  8. Erika

    I agree with the others, a very refreshing post. Sometimes in our desire to incarnational and missional, we forget the cross that makes gives substance to call to follow.

  9. Erika, I too agree with the others. A wonderful post in both how you express the key theme and then fill it out with two real stories that bring it to life. This is one that’s going to be sticking with me.

    One thing that comes to mind is less of a comment about your post and more of a reflection your post inspired. The crucifixion was the consequence of the incarnation. This is so true and lost as many seek to be among, but then are surprised when they are not welcomed as liberators. We carry the cross with us, and it’s the cross your three year old so understands (”From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’)

    What we also forget, I find, is that the resurrection was also the consequence of the incarnation. And it still is! Those in the early church clung to the resurrection because they were so feeling the reality of the incarnation’s cross. There is hope and power and renewal on the other side of the cross. The broader church has lost the perspective on this as it has lost the perspective on real incarnation, leaving books on Christ’s victory about fear and signs and us vs. them. Those who live within the incarnation call, however, can speak to a renewed vision of the resurrection, in the past and the future, that charges the mission with an enduring hope.


  10. Patrick,

    Beautifully put. Jamie chalenged me to reflect more deeply on the resurrection piece of things which I hope to do today (I have a terrible head cold so am in a bit of a fog, but we’ll see). Thanks for the great thoughts!

  11. Pat,

    Thanks so much. It has been so fun to read and hear from so many folks thinking on these things. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  12. Erika,
    Not that we want to rate the posts 🙂 but I’m with Jamie on this one. Brilliant, powerful, poignant and true. Thank you for it. (And get over the cold.)

  13. I agree with what you say. However, a minor point. Death carries with it a certain finality. There is some relief in dying. The issue is over, done, complete. What I find is more difficult to accept is suffering. It is more complicated. To die is to accept the end. To suffer is to live in the in-between. I wish I could remember where he wrote it, but C.S. Lewis said that the degree that we suffer is the degree that we can love. I think that is true. To suffer can mean to die, but to die can be a more abstract academic mindset. Suffering goes to the heart of who we are before God.
    What I read in your post is really more a death to my own self-interest. I am placing myself in the position to do each day what God would have me to do. If that is suffering, then I welcome it because it will show me just how great and effective is the love of God. Without the death of Christ, and our own suffering, our understanding of God’s love would be so shallow as to be non-existent. I certain don’t go looking to suffer, but I recognize it as the friend that takes me deeper into the experience of God’s love in Jesus.

  14. Good point. I guess the “death” I describe here is that which occurs over and over again, so no, it is not final as you say but perhaps could be equated with suffering in its ongoing-ness. Or maybe they are really two different things: there are things in me that need to die, and while it may be a slow, painful death, it is just that-a death. Whereas suffering can have nothing to do with my internal battle between self-love and God-love. Hmmm…. I’ll have to think further on this when I don’t have a head cold 🙂

  15. Erica,

    Thank you for this … the Abbess appreciates “purple martyrdom” wherever it turns up!

    …I’m fighting a terrible case of hayfever-incuded oxygen deprivation, so I’m totally relating to the fog-factor! LOL!

    Shalom, sister, and recover soon.

  16. I loved this post, especially the parts about treating a community in geographic terms as the parish, and the portion about multi-ethnicity.

    The church I work with isn’t great on the first point, but we’re working on the second. It’s a Brazilian church with a new Hispanic congregation started as well, and the second generation of both speaking mostly English. We’re under the same roof, have a joint meeting once a month and are struggling through how to be one church with three ethnicities (I’m the token gringo for now) and three languages.

    What your group has done where you are encourages me like you wouldn’t believe.

  17. Thanks, Peggy!


    Your church sounds wonderful! Certainly rich with challenges I’m sure and very, very deep joys.

  18. This is a great post Erika. If only more of us had the courage to step out of our comfort zones and love our neighbours and be missional…

    I include myself in that.

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